After Kawhi Leonard led the Raptors to their one and only NBA title during his lone season in Toronto, he took his talents to Los Angeles and quickly engineered a trade that landed Paul George as his Clippers running mate.
In the wake of that one-two step, long-suffering Clippers fans justifiably expected that their team would the next to pop its championship cherry. But that hasn’t come close to materializing, namely because — either due to legitimate injuries or load management timidity — Leonard hasn’t spent a whole lot of time in the lineup. Out of 259 regular-season games the Clippers have played since Leonard signed a multiyear contract that now pays him upward of $39 million per year, Leonard has suited up in 114 — or 44% — of them.
To be fair, Leonard missed all of last season with a torn ACL. But this season, one in which he was expected to be back at full strength (which, in present-day Kawhi terms, means suiting up about two out of every three games), Leonard has only given it a go in five out of the team’s 23 games. And in the quintet of games he has played, he’s only averaged 22.4 minutes per game, averaging 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists.
Leonard may return to action Saturday against Sacramento, a young, hungry team that sits a half-game back of the 13-10 Clippers in the Western Conference playoff race. But the smart money is on “may not.”
When it comes to Leonard, however, there’s no such thing as smart money. For as maddening as it must be to be a Clippers fan whose title hopes hinge on the strength of Kawhi’s creaky knees, his eternally uncertain playing status has created an unprecedented sports betting conundrum.
When asked if he’s ever seen an individual NBA player create a more challenging situation for oddsmakers than Leonard, WynnBET Vice President of Trading Alan Berg replied, “I would say no. When healthy, he’s one of the three or five best players in the league. The closest guy I can think of is Anthony Davis when he was with the Pelicans. He was so dominant that he swung the spread. But he wasn’t to the level of Kawhi, where you just really have no idea if he’s going to play at all. I joked with a friend that if the Clippers are smart, they should start him just 15 games during the regular season and have him ready for the playoffs.”
Some observers seem to seriously agree with Berg’s buddy. After the not-at-all-shocking news broke that Leonard would miss the Clippers’ two most recent games against Portland and Utah (which they split), NBA Twitter took to roasting Load Management Leonard.
Just rest him till after the all star break.
— Ty ☘️ (@TylerCornellNBA) November 29, 2022
The Clippers were a trendy pick to win their first NBA title at multiple mobile sportsbooks before the season began. And despite a solid but middling record and scant Kawhi sightings, they’re still among the favorites in that market, with WynnBET assigning them odds of 8/1, level with Phoenix and longer than only Boston (4/1), Milwaukee (5/1), and the defending champion Golden State Warriors (+550).
But when you look at the market for which team will wind up with the most regular-season wins, the Clippers are nowhere near the top at odds of 150/1. This discrepancy makes it clear that Berg and his fellow bookmakers feel that Kawhi won’t be a reliable contributor until spring rolls around.
“It’s foolish to play a guy a whole lot in the regular season when your team’s good enough to get you to the playoffs without him,” explained Berg. “The only thing you have to worry about is whether the chemistry will be there.”
With Leonard, Berg believes the Clippers are “a championship team on paper.” But should he develop a debilitating ingrown hair or undiagnosable nose cartilage issue that forces him to shut it down for the season, Berg thinks the Clips, provided George is healthy, would “probably be in the range of Denver and Memphis” at title odds of around 16/1.
“They’re still one of the deepest teams and are still a great defensive team without Kawhi,” said Berg of the Leonard-less Clips.
Casting his gaze league-wide, Berg concluded, “The NBA is a bookmaker’s nightmare because there are so many probables, questionables, doubtfuls. You can get yourself in some really ugly situations the way these stars can impact the lines. There are certain games you walk into and you have five or six guys questionable and you obviously can’t take a full limit. Then you get an announcement and it’s not actually accurate. There are a lot of games going on in terms of how much truth teams are telling the media, and it gets frustrating.”
Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY